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Sucking at Self-Care: A San Francisco Saga

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Our new column The Wanderer follows young writer Tess F. Stevens through different threads of San Francisco culture, experiences, and issues. She hopes to challenge, connect and define some of the things we find difficult to put into words. 


Self-care has become a necessary evil for anyone who wants to appear to have the proper work/life balance in a city where it has become beyond impossible to make ends meet, even if you work two or three jobs.

Mostly, caring for yourself includes things like: meditation, hot yoga classes, taking tons of photos of yourself, regular psychiatric visits, eating something from a trendy juicery, spending time with friends, engaging in “girl gang” activities like brunch, visits to Dolores Park, and outdoor pursuits like hikes to Lands End or jogs across the Golden Gate Bridge on foggy Sunday mornings.

On an Instagram feed, these uplifting activities in sun-drenched locations with people who look like they stepped out of an Urban Outfitters catalog, appear to be what every millennial is doing all the time.

In reality, you might be lying in your own bed on a Friday night, eating a tasteless, generic bag of chips and watching RuPaul’s Drag Race Season 4 while dodging calls from bill collectors.

In reality, you might be eating McDonald’s cheeseburgers because they’re cheaper than salads, even though you’ve gained 20 pounds.

So, you’re not perfect like the people on Instagram? And, should you feel bad about that?

For those of us who do not have the budget to buy a $75 San Francisco brunch, or to hang out with a gaggle of stylish friends, this phenomenon of taking care of yourself in the public eye can seem unattainable. It’s easy to feel like you’re an absolute failure if you don’t have the latest Korean facemask to take a silly selfie in, or the perfectly curated artisanal latte to sip on the way to work and post on your Snapchat story. It’s easy to feel like you’re the one missing out if you can’t afford even second-hand goods from Wasteland on Haight, or an organic ice cream treat from Salt & Straw.

Yes. These are first-world problems. And yes, I have a makeup-buying problem, and yes I spend more money than I should be trying to keep up. And yes, I am a hypocrite! But aren’t we all?

Here’s a prime example of what trying to keep up with others looks like — wine country + a group of girls + fake laughs all for Instagram:

San Francisco’s self-care obsession is just another thing that makes its residents feel like they can’t catch their breath. As if rising rent costs, skyrocketing crime rates, political turmoil and the ongoing tragedy of the homeless crisis weren’t enough. Even though the goals of self-care are to relax and enjoy life, the path is now a rabid, stressful competition to get the most likes on Instagram.  

The big question here is: How can you give yourself the rest you deserve without giving in to shallow social media trends?

I attempted to answer this question while in my tiny in-law apartment in Ingleside. With two roommates in a less-than 700-square-foot space, no kitchen, a bathroom where the toilet is nearly in the shower, nowhere to park, and a living room that is smaller than most teenagers bedrooms, it’s hard to feel at peace.

The constant shuffling of the upstairs tenants, a revolving group of college girls who have parties on Monday nights equipped with what sounds like broken glass as their soundtrack, is hardly calming. To the building’s immediate right is a church that conducts service 5 days a week at a deafening level as the sounds of off-key singers explode through their windows and into ours. We don’t control the heat, only the girls upstairs can change the temperature. Either the apartment is an icebox worthy of storing dead cattle, or it’s a scorching wasteland that rivals dry heat of Death Valley. At no point is it comfortable.

To practice self-care in this environment, even if it is just the Instagram version, is difficult but not impossible. Of course, I could be homeless or trying to support a family, or be jobless. I could even be forced out of my home like so many of my San Francisco brothers and sisters. So I do realize that this diatribe about living conditions may not be fair. Still, paying $2,500 a month in total for this arrangement is less than ideal, and it is an example of the common struggle of thousands in the city.

One evening, as my neighbor church was worshiping Jesus at the volume of Spinal Tap, I decided to open the window. Even though the icebox effect was making my teeth chatter, I wanted to hear what the worshippers were saying. And suddenly, I felt a sense of overwhelming calm, Xanax calm without the side effects. A sea breeze flew through the window and whipped the papers strewn across my desk onto the floor. I didn’t even care.

I breathed in and out and could just make out the words, “Respeta a tu familia, tu hogar y a ti mismo.” Urban Dictionary doesn’t have a definition for that pure sentence, which flew in through my bedroom window via dozens of voices, but it means, “Respect your family, your home, and yourself.”

I guess that’s something people are trying to do when they post about their expensive self-care activities.

Instead of going out for an expensive meal, I called my dad and listened to him talk about football, my brother, and the Ohio weather (respect your family).  Instead of buying new home decor to look like someone who has money, I put away my laundry (respect your home). Finally, I put on my favorite episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race, got a Slim Jim from the bodega, and kicked off my Chuck Taylors in a defiant manner while thinking about going to the gym (respect yourself).

I breathed out, closed the window and forgot about looking good on Instagram and trying to keep up with all of the fabulous people in San Francisco. I left my apartment to take a walk around Ingleside and saw a man wearing a beat-up top hat panhandling on the street. I gave him my last $5 before payday.

As I noticed the sun going down and the fog starting to roll in, I thought about the beautiful people practicing self-care in their luxury apartments. Are they bad people? No. Are they slightly misguided? Possibly. Are they happy? Who knows.

Instead of feeling less than, I decided to feel just fine.

Maybe that’s the key to sucking less and feeling better in a city with so much beauty and so much pain.

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Tess F. Stevens

Tess F. Stevens

Hey, I'm Tess and I have been writing for a while now and love to explore new subjects, places, and people. I love punk music, RuPaul's Drag Race, stationery, fashion, and baseball. I hope that something I write here connects with you in some way. I host a podcast called "What You Didn't Know," with my father, who is also a journalist. You can find my writing in Where Magazine, here at BrokeAssStuart.com and on ABC7News.com.